Community engagement v. individualism, with authoritarians watching

I have a friend in the Virginia libertarian circles, Rick Sincere, who recently has run some interesting guests posts on his blog, like this recent one on Masterpiece Cakeshop.

I do have a few guest posts on my two newer WordPress blogs (“Blogtyrant” really encourages the practice) but this one will be a pseudo-guest post, a Smerconish-like compendium of some feedback from a friend in the past twenty four hours after a typical social in the “gay establishment” with all the usual abstract trappings about equality.

He shared with me the parable of Rebekah Mercer (think, Mercer County New Jersey, where I lived for my first job with RCA, in Princeton, starting in 1970), daughter of the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, conveyed in this Washington Post article January 5 by Kyle Swenson.  My friend’s narrative focused on the role of pollster and political operative Patrick Cladell in convincing the family that Donald Trump needed to become their Mr. Smith who would go to Washington and wreck the establishment.

The article focuses on the resentment of the elites by just part of the far right.  True, the Left had carried opposition to pipelines and drilling too far, if the nation really needs to go to autarky on energy. True, foreign competition had destroyed a lot of manufacturing jobs – and the hedge fund managers didn’t recognize the irony of their opposing seeing the middle class follow them into the world of hucksterism (as I found out in many job interviews in the 2000’s) when we didn’t make enough of our own stuff.  Indeed, that’s a legitimate national security concern.  Up to some point, the nationalism of Steve Bannon had to make sense to them.  And, true enough, the meddlesomeness of Obamacare hurt a lot of young adults, who were forced to pay higher premiums to take care of “other people’s problems” (like opioid) that they might be unlikely to encounter themselves.

The Mercers probably didn’t care so much about the social issues:  they just resented the idea of people fighting for different treatment for different groups instead of fighting for themselves as individuals. (Maybe that means it’s OK to be a charismatic superhero-like cis gay man [even a comic book space alien] but not a sissy  and not an earthly immigrant.)  But Robert, like Donald, shared a personal revulsion for personal involvement with “losers”. A man’s real worth was his financial network, like a grade for one’s life.

But then something else happened. Trump carried his authoritarian streak (and need for control and self-gratification as the leader) much further than the Mercers probably wanted.  But he was the best “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (Frank Capra’s 1939 film for Columbia, legacy review) that they could find.

But what happened, as we know, that Trump played to a base who see things more in terms of a strong politician taking care of them than in terms of actual policy fixes.  And as Michael Moore pointed out, a lot of people just wanted a “Blow Up”, a revolution – to disrupt the lives of the elites, even if you destroyed the country in the process.

All of this indeed leads to a county in increased danger, particularly from one particular enemy, and detracts from orderly solutions to all of our inequality problems.

Yes, it puts me on the spot.  While I leverage asymmetry online to establish myself as an individual, apart for the group, I probably ask for new dangers, from combative enemies could can also leverage the same asymmetry.

There are many existential threats out there to my continuing my own style of free speech, as I’ve covered before (the gratuitousness problem).  I’ll be coming back to some of the details (probably the Section 230 issues are more important than network neutrality) soon, but I wanted to revisit the idea of “the privilege of being listened to” as in my DADT III book.  One idea is that, before someone is “heard” as an individual he (or she or “they”) needs to show some kind of community engagement.

That sounds like almost “forced” volunteerism, a step down from national service, supervised by the bureaucracy of charities and nonprofits.

Now, there are two kinds of volunteerism to start.  One is really volunteering for political activism.  A friend suggested volunteering a little a HRC or some similar group (NLGTF) to learn what “group identity” sensitivity is all about (given all my criticism of “trigger warnings”, “microaggressions”, and “intersectionality”).  Now, like in the movie “Rebirth”, I think there is something wrong with volunteering to “look” or “spectate”.  I wouldn’t do that unless I was completely with the goals of the group (as opposed to the liberty interests of individuals in the group, which Rick Sincere’s blog above deals with).  My own father used to deploy the phrase “as a group” when he talked about race (unfortunately quoting the Bible wrong). Bill Clinton had to deny that lifting the military ban would be about “group rights”.

That said, I do engage of activism of sorts with my blogs – these days, mostly on sustainability for our civilization, where, yes, I’ve focused on the EMP issue as possibly posing a singularity-type threat.  Along the lines of the work I have done (I don’t mean with a therapist), I would love to work for a news organization and have a press pass.  Then, yes, I might be able to cover HRC activism with some objectivity.  But I can see covering events regarding, for example, net neutrality or Section 230. I don’t see marching on picket lines over these issues, however.

The other kinds of volunteerism is to help people – with real needs.  But that forks in a few direction.

I did this in the 1980s and less in the 1990s with the AIDS crisis, because it had reared up in my own life (although I didn’t get infected because of reverse Darwinism – “The Normal Heart”).  I was a “baby buddy” for a time in 1986-87 at the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas.  I was also the pain that questioned the gay politicians for wanting to get out of some of the “extended personal responsibility” issues, which got dangerous  (the “don’t take the test” crowd).  In the 1990s, I volunteered one night a month for a while at Food and Friends counting donations when it was located in the Navy Yard-Waterfront (Washington).

I have spot-volunteered, like at a local church’s monthly “community assistance” dinners and handout sessions, but not found it terribly meaningful.  Some volunteer activities ask for more help than they need because they may or may not need the bodies for a short time.

Now, as with the examples I gave, you can focus volunteerism on “groups” to which you have “belonged” (whether or not you “chose to”).  You can focus on whether giving goes to that group, or to any individuals in need.  And I can’t blow off the group idea completely.  Consider Trump’s joke about Pence’s past attitude toward “LGBT people” (as a group”), “Oh, he wants to hang ‘em all”. (I remember the 1968 Clint Eastwood movie “Hang ‘em High”).  It sounds funny even on the “gay right”.  But there’s a point where it isn’t.  You can be in the wrong group whether you chose to or not.  Imagine living in Germany in the 1930s. That does help grasp the sensitivities surrounding Charlottesville.

The effectiveness of volunteerism depends on the skills you have. I could imagine directing chess tournaments in underprivileged areas – but it would be desirable to be as effective a chess player as possible first. I can imagine helping people not fall for phishing scams.

But a lot of times charities want volunteers to go out of their own boxes.  The Red Cross, for example, wants volunteers to install smoke detectors in low income homes.  That would make more sense if I had kept the trust house.

There is another direction that “real needs” can fork to — actually taking responsibility for supporting or hosting someone.

So, the bottom line is, I have to finish my own work, on my issues as I have laid them out, before I’m much good on “somebody else’s” problems and supervision.  I have my own goals and path and self-direction and strategy. It takes time and freedom from disruption to carry out. I can’t let it be negotiable.  Yet I realize that if I didn’t have this, I’d have to be more amenable to “groups” to “survive”. Maybe that is better for a lot of other people.

I’ve had some discussion with the friend telling me he cannot be open online about controversial topics. This gets back to what I’ve called “conflict of interest” over publicly available speech. I’ve covered this before with links, but it’s good to reiterate a couple things.  If someone has direct reports on the job or the ability to pass “underwriting” judgments on others, then off-the-job policy opinions that can easily be found by others (as by search engines or by public social media pages) put the relationship between the associate and stakeholders at potential risk, even legally (like hostile workplace). One way to handle this is for an employer to insist that the person’s only public social media presence be the official work one, and that all private social media communications be under full privacy settings. If you have certain kinds of jobs, you relinquish the right of “self-publication” (or self-distribution).

(Posted: Saturday, Jan. 6, 2017 at 9 PM EST)

In a real world, when you look for work, identity politics doesn’t help

On Thursday, December 13, 2001 at precisely 9 AM CST a Netware message flashed across my computer monitor as I assisted an internal user with a production problem at work (at ING in Minneapolis). It read “Your account has been disabled, please logoff now.”

I completed the call, then logged off, and have never logged on to a work computer in a similar salaried professional job since that moment.  Moments later, my manager was herding me into a conference room where I learned my severance agreement.  It was very generous, because I was over 55 (actually 58) and could retire.  In some scenarios, given how my life went, I could be much better off, even financially, with this outcome than if I stayed.

Still, I would need to find some work.  It turned out, as I have documented in my DADT III book, that family circumstances intervened and I eventually “landed” rather well at the end of 2010.  That gets beyond the point for the moment.

The traditional I.T. job market was tumbling after Y2K (and then 9/11).  Back in the 70s and 80s, mainframe computer programming had tended to provide stable salaried employment, and had that reputation, compared to other occupations. It had the advantage of not requiring formal licensing. It had a disadvantage, as with most salaried jobs, that employers could demand unpaid overtime to complete projects on time and for production “Nightcall” support. Since programmers tended to be somewhat introverted and individualistic (I could go off track and mention James Damore now), they were less likely to organize than workers in manufacturing occupations.

In the 1990s, countervailing forces came into play.  The sudden emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web, as well as client-server programming (especially object-oriented), which has a cryptic-looking style compared to procedural programming in older mainframe languages) tended to fracture the market. Employers needed to keep older mainframe programmers around until Y2K was completed to do all the conversions.  Older programmers found the newer stuff, while opportunistic, difficult to master in an ad-hoc manner;  it’s easier to master something if you develop it yourself and put it into production and are responsible for supporting it.  Newer workplace environments made this harder to do with the new web-based applications.

So after Y2K, the mainframe market tended to break into short term gigs, where staffing companies produced the people and paid them hourly and per diem.  Employers with older systems, especially state government departments, needed contractors with very specific experience, in terms of languages, packages, and end-user interfaces.  The same group of contractors tended to rotate among these positions as they gradually withered.

Now I have seen an uptick in old-fashioned mainframe jobs in the past two years or so, mostly because of all the problems in health care.  When the Obama administration tried to develop the Affordable Care Act, contractors found that professionals with the maturity required to put together systems like this properly were in short supply as they had dwindled and “retired” like me.  That is one reason why Obamacare has had so many problems.  This observation does not bode well for other systems, especially those that support critical infrastructure like power grids, and this could evolve into a critical national security problem as I have already explained here.

In my own case, I did have a few interviews for these positions. Often the interview with the end-user client (like a state government agency or a health care PPO, implementing HIPAA, for example) was by phone only.  I never quite scored to get back in.  There were a few curious problems, and I do wonder if my online reputation (pre-Facebook) could have made me more or less unemployable, because I had demonstrated a propensity to write publicly (journalistically) about all that had happened in my past once I had departed from a particular job or situation.

So that left me with the “proletarian” market (that is, becoming a “Prole”). There were three big issues:  (1) low starting pay (sometimes augmented with commissions); (2) personal regimentation; and (3) manipulative salesmanship.   You can get a sense of this by looking at a resume table of the jobs that I had or “almost had” after 2001.

I actually did find a job “telemarketing” (or “telefunding”) for the Minnesota Orchestra, from spring 2002 to summer 2003. Though part time and starting at $6 an hour plus commissions (which did start to work out in time), the job provided a sense of stability and daily anchoring, and I could still walk to it on the Minneapolis Skyway.  There was a tendency for any job you had to become your “universe” and blunt some of the focus of the world’s outside turmoils, although 9/11 tended to start to fracture this complacency.

The ”regimentation” is literally a way to “pay your dues”, as test of “whether you can work”, like in a fast food place.  It sounds rather Marxist.

But the sales culture is about whether you can play ball (rather than spectate) and manipulate others to buy things.  One of the most troubling interviews happened in 2002 with PrimeVest, about contacting potential leads to convert whole life policies to term. That might be a good idea for a lot of people.  But the interviewer became defensive about all the analytical questions I asked of his presentation, as if I could play the role of “The Good Doctor” just a little and find all the perils and flaws.  (It is relevant that I had worked 12 years in life insurance IT and was not going to be fooled.) On 2005 I would get calls about becoming a life insurance agent or financial planner from at least two other life companies.  But it seems that what people do for leads is troll Internet logs to find contacts.  Yet, there is a culture out there saying that cold calling and manipulation is legitimate, necessary for a functioning (or maybe “functionable”) economy.  But one other thing that I found was that many of the “sales” jobs were related to helping low income people stretch their money.  These jobs could have occurred in industries like title loans, payday loans, credit counseling (I would work as a debt collector), and distributing telephone cards or fixed debit cards.

I even looked at a job as a uniformed gate agent for Atlantic Coast Airlines at a job fair in 2004 at Dulles Airport. ($9.85 and hour then.)   I didn’t get the job, but (for the effort of a thirty minute public speech on how the workplace was changing, basically right out of my first book) I got two free (except for about $10 fee( roundtrips that year (to Atlanta and then to Tampa)   I still use the large inventory of Florida photos I made then on blogs.

But other applications really were for grunt work –  retail clerk in a video store (no longer there), or a movie theater (Landmark could have been interesting).

I covered a key point that came up in substitute teaching in the previous post.

Here is my point:  I had to deal with things, myself, as they were.  I had to “pay my dues”.  There was no thought of falling back on membership in some oppressed class and appealing to intersectionality or gay identity politics.  It could just as easily argued that I had worn my privilege too much at various points in my life (my parents had money and financial and personal stability, my student deferments during the Vietnam era which kept me out of combat when I finally went in, my “whiteness”.  A lot of people do have to take more risks than I do just to get by.  And having kids changes things.  I did not.

Furthermore, even if I joined a “movement” to protect me, I would have to “perform” according to the norms of the movement and “take orders” anyway.

This all builds up to something as the world turns.  I don’t want to become an elderly male Scarlet O’Hara.

(Posted: Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at 10:19 PM EST)

Trump’s travel ban 3.0 falls flat in court; why “lawless government” argument doesn’t work

Trump’s latest travel bans were struck down again last week.  In Hawaii, the decision was reported Oct. 17 with this copy of the opinion from the ACLU.  Ditto recently in Maryland.

The Hawaii judge actually cited a post by Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh noting that there have been no fatalities in the US from immigrants or travelers from those countries.  Cato had also provided an Amicus brief to Hawaii.

David Bier has contributed a major op-ed to the Washington Post, “Why bother?” to the Washington Post, here.   I think his most important argument is that visitors from countries with weak governments or weak security still bear the burden of proof when trying to enter that their purposes for a visit are legitimate.  In individual cases, some people may be able to prove legitimacy.  The overall statistical chances are that many will not.  In many cases, legitimacy would have to do with known family connections in the U.S.

There are good examples of this reasoning.  For example, in the Minneapolis area, there is a well established Somali community, which was never controversial, even after 9/11 (although there have been a few cases of attempted youth recruitment in more recent years in that area).

I’ll note that in my own information technology career, which started in 1971, I often encountered people from India and Pakistan, who dressed and behaved like ordinary Americans and simply never got into issues of religion at work (this was particularly true in the 1980s in Dallas). A major software bridge for an insurance company in Minneapolis that I worked for through Y2K and into the 9/11 period was coded entirely by a C++ (object oriented) and server technology guru from Pakistan who ran his own contracting company of advanced internals coding projects for corporate infrastructure.  He often hosted social events for other techies and no one ever thought anything of his religion.

(Posted: Monday, October 23, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

A couple ways individual people can be silenced online, and they sound a bit chilling to me

On Aug. 4, I wrote a piece here to the long-term threats to user-generated content on the Internet, and continued that on Aug. 7 with another post on recognizing citizen journalism.

Today, I’d like to perform an inside-out swing (Fenway Park style) and look at two (or maybe three) ways individual speakers could be “shut up” (or shut down, as you were).

The discussion seems motivated in part by the growing rash of incidents starting in maybe 2005 where a person gets fired for something he/she said on social media (using a personal account off the workplace) about a controversial workplace or media-reported situation. This has particularly happened to teachers (even public employees). As I’ve written here before, I had a major incident when working as a substitute teacher at the end of 2005, complicated by an improbable combination of coincidences. In fact, Heather Armstrong started her lucrative career as a mommy blogger after being “dooced” at the Utah software company where she was working on 2002 over something she had said about the company in her own blog.

At the same time, companies and individuals started realizing that their “online reputations” could be damaged by attacks from others, or (specifically for small companies), “bad reviews” on sites like Yelp. In numerous cases, businesses have sued consumers over bad reviews, saying that the transparency created by review sites can put them out of business with fake information. Some businesses (even physicians) have tried to force consumers to sign “gag clauses” (or non-disparagement contracts) before providing consumer service. Congress addressed this problem with a Consumer Review Fairness Ac t in January 2017 (story 1, story 2).

I have not had many big consumer problems, but I have made it my own practice not to use review sites (other than Amazon for books and films). I generally don’t mention my own providers online because I may need service again. When there is a problem, I try to settle it privately.

About the time Y2K had finished, the business world was starting to notice that blogging or personal websites of employees or customers had the capability of creating problems, through search engine discovery. Occasionally, one would see an article about “employee blogging policies.” Generally, model policies would say that employees, if they mentioned the company, must state that the opinions were their own and not made in official capacity, and that trade secrets or internal office disputes must not be mentioned.

By 2004, pundits were also noticing an incidental, unintended problem: personal blogs about political candidates could be construed as illegal campaign contribution, according to the 2002 campaign finance reform law. That issue coincidentally figured in to my own incident at the end of 2005. But in time, the concern “blew over”.

And about 2006, we started hearing about the term “online reputation”, which in the days before Facebook became public, had mainly to do with search engine results which could include material posted by others (and which could involved mistaken identity, easily). People with common names as opposed to unusual ethnic names were affected differently.

But, in sum, the main gag on ordinary speakers would tend to be subject specific, especially when dealing with specific employers, service companies, perhaps specific residential communities (apartment buildings or condos) or dealing especially with consumer information and PII. This did not normally necessarily with individual speech in a substantial way.

There’s another way this could have been approached, as I had noted in a white paper I had written back in March 2000.

That is to say, if you have a particular position in a company where you have direct reports or other discretionary authority (like underwriting) you don’t publish anything at all yourself without a third party gatekeeper. In social media, full privacy settings must always be used, restricting access to known “friends” or “followers”. I haven’t yet heard of a case where this requirement was demanded.

One reason for this concern is that subtle search results could show prejudice, which could affect a workplace situation. On my “doaskdotell.com” site I have hundreds of short movie reviews. Sometimes I have made wisecracks about various characters or actors that would suggest a certain personal belief in “body fascism”, which some readers could construe as indirect racism or sexism. That could contribute, for example, to a hostile workplace situation. When I had the 2005 fiasco as a substitute teacher, my site logs showed many search requests with search arguments suggesting that the reader was looking for this. Since that time, Google has stopped allowing search arguments to be logged partly for that reason.  Another danger could be that an employee, by his web presence, could show a proclivity to write about a company after leaving it.

But it’s interesting to recall how Facebook started – at first as a true social network on one campus, then on connected campuses. It didn’t become available to the entire public (over 13) until late 2006. Gradually it augmented itself from a pure social networking facility to a self-publishing platform, with the concept of pages and followers as well as “friends”. The algorithms by which it serves articles have become controversial since the “fake news” issue in the 2016 election.

Imagine, at least as a thought experiment, a world in which all social media accounts have to be whitelisted, that is, you have to approve everyone, and in which no user generated content on websites was allowed (say, if Section 230 went away).   You would only be able to network with people you had met first “in the real world”. That was pretty much how a lot things were, probably, until maybe 1996. A lot of people would say, no big loss; we need to learn to be together in the real world again anyway. Obviously, much of the Internet business sector would collapse, along with their stock prices, but the business models of UG and hosting companies may be more fragile than we realize.

A third area worth mentioning goes back to where my own self-publishing started: I had covered most of this ground on July 8, 2016. I wanted to reinforce the idea that some POD or “cooperative book publishing” companies are putting much more pressure on authors to actually sell books (not just Kindle) than previously. I’ve noticed this trend since about 2012. That may mean that an author will need to establish her own business identity , and deal with home-based business regulations in their locality (usually not much of a problem) but also residence, which may become particularly troubling for condos, partly because the physical home address usually must be listed with the state (for sales tax) or local government (for business license and equipment property taxes). I may be coming back to this topic later.

(Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2017 at 8:30 PM EDT)

Will “artificial intelligence deniers” tomorrow mimic climate change deniers today?

Elon Musk has called artificial intelligence a potential existential threat to civilization, according to meida reports, such as this story on NPR by Camila Domonoske    Stephen Hawking has made similar warnings, as has Google’s Eric Schmidt.

This gets beyond the job losses to technology and automation, and the hollowing out of the middle class (for which Trump’s “MAGA” seems like a band-aid). AI entities could, in this view, develop real self-awareness and malevolent intentions, just like in the movies.

We can run through a list of films from the past that have exploited this idea. The classic is MGM’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) where HAL proxies for IBM.  Or “Guardians of the Galaxy” recently.  Or the droid character on the forlorn spaceship in “Alien” (1979).  Or try A24’s “Ex Machina” (2014).  Or Spielberg’s outright “A.I.” (2001).  A tempting theme is that a hero of a film doesn’t know he is really a robot.  I like the idea of not knowing you are an alien or even an angel better.

Playing chess at a grandmaster level does not signify consciousness.  At a certain point, even for human players, endgames become precise mathematical calculations.   Conversely, Magnus Carlsen, with other egos as a male model and fitness person, is fully human, whatever his blindfold simultaneous capabilities.  Maybe his endgame skills could help MLB baseball teams psychologically with their “closers” (relief pitchers, especially the Washington Nationals).

We still don’t know what creates self-awareness and free will.  We think that it has something to do with microtubules in the brain.  But how does that explain, for example, distributed consciousness in some animals, ranging from social insects even to dolphins?  There is some reason to think that there is a connection between distributed consciousness and what we call “soul” or that which survives in an afterlife.  Indeed, consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, even when we look at our own individual cells.

Another possibility that invokes the AI scare is nanotechnology.  Jack Andraka (“Breakthrough” book), inventor of the new pancreatic cancer test, wants people to carry circulating nanobots in their bloodstreams (like “Jake 2.0”, the UPN series 14 years ago) to find and zap cancer cells.  Would nanobots develop a collective mind of their own?

So, two decades from now, could “AI deniers” become a political issue just like the “climate change deniers” of today?

There’s one more biggie to think about.  If man starts planning to colonize the Moon or Mars (or maybe the atmosphere of Venus with a floating platform at 30 miles elevation) and set up a micronation, we’ll have to ponder how we select the people who go, beyond mere medical fitness.  Should they be people who do not intend to have children?  If we ever had to evacuate Earth with a rama-like spaceship, how would we choose the people who could go and live several geneations on a spacecraft to reach another solar system (maybe the earth-like exoplanet around Proxima B)?

(Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2017 at 1:30 PM EDT)

How an article on the workplace and automation leads us back to network neutrality and other potential issues for Internet user-generated content

A guest post by 30-year-old Australian blogging (and physical fitness) guru Ramsay Taplin (aka “Blogtyrant“), in “Goins, Writer” about how to deal with the invasion of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace (when these innovations threaten to replace you) rather accidentally re-ignites the debate over the future of the Internet and ordinary speech on it in the United States.  (Before I go further, I’ve love to meet the huge cat on Ramsay’s Twitter page.)

Ramsay’s post seems to be a bit in the tradition of libertarian George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowen’s book “Average Is Over,” outlining how middling people need to deal with the changing modern workplace.  At a crucial point in his essay, Ramsay, after suggesting that employed people consider starting small businesses on their own time, recommends most business owners (as well as professionals like lawyers, financial planners, agents, and even book authors) stake out their property in “modern real estate” with a professionally hosted blog site.  But then he dismissively adds the caveat, “unless the Internet changes dramatically through removing net neutrality…”

Later, he writes “make sure everything you do on the Internet helps someone,” a very important base concept that I’ll come back to. He gives a link to a compelling essay on personal and workplace ethics in a site called “Dear Design Student”, about how you can’t lead a double life and be believed forever.  You can see my conversation with him in the comments.

Whoa, there.  OK, Ramsay works (“from his couch”) in Australia, part of the British Commonwealth, and, like most western-style democratic countries, the Aussie World maintains statutory network neutrality regulations on its own turf (I presume).  But, as we know, under the new Trump administration and new FCC chair Ajit Pai, the Obama era’s network neutrality protections, largely set in place (in 2015) by maintaining that self-declared “neutral conduit” telecommunications companies are common carriers, will almost certainly be disbanded late this summer in the U.S. after the formal comment period is over.  Pro-neutrality advocates (including most tech companies) plan a “Day of Action” July 12, which Breitbart characterized in rather hyperbolic farce.

That situation puts American companies at odds with the rest of the capitalist democratic world (definitely not including Russia and China).  There are plenty of political advocacy pressure groups with “Chicken Little” “Sky Is Falling” warnings (along with aggressive popups for donations) about how exposed small companies and individual speakers online may be intentionally silenced (as I had outlined here on May 11).  Right away, I rebut by noting that not only is there to be (according to Pai) “voluntary compliance”, but also every major general-purpose telecom company in the US seems to say it has no intention to throttle ordinary sites.  In fact, most consumers, when they sign up for Internet, want full access to everything out there on the indexed web, so doing so would make no business sense.

Even so, some comparison of the world now to what it was a few decades ago, when I came of age, is in order.  Telephone companies were monopolistic but were regulated, so they couldn’t refuse service to consumers they didn’t like.  None of this changed as ATT break-up into the Bell’s happened (something I watched in the 80s-job market for I.T.)  But until the WWW came along in the mid-90s, the regulations only protected consumers getting content (phone calls), not wanting to upload it with no gatekeepers for pre-approval.  Back then, in a somewhat regulated environment, companies did make technological innovations for big paying customers (like DOD).  Pai would seem to be wrong in asserting that all regulation will stop innovation.

It’s also noteworthy that the FCC regulated broadcast networks, especially the number of television stations they could own (I remember this while working for NBC in the 1970s).  Likewise, movie studios were not allowed to own theater chains (that has somewhat changed more recently).

But by analogy, it doesn’t seem logical that reasonable rules preventing ordinary content throttling would stymie innovation where there are real benefits to consumers (like higher speeds for high definition movies, or for emergency medical services, and the like), or, for that matter, better service in rural areas.

There are also claims that new telecom technologies could enter the market, and that Obama-like net neutrality rules would stifle newcomer telecom companies.  Maybe this could bear on super-high-speed FIOS, for example, that Google has tried in a few cities.

Then, some of the punditry get speculative.  For example, a faith-based ISP might want to set up a very restricted service for religious families. It sounds rather improbable, but maybe that needs to be OK.  Or maybe a Comcast or Verizon wants to offer a low-end Internet service that doesn’t offer all websites, just an approved whitelist.  Maybe that appeals to locally socialized families with little interest in “globalism”.  That sounds a little more serious in its possible impact on other small businesses trying to reach them.

Another idea that cannot be dismissed out of hand, is that telecom companies could be prodded to deny connection access to illegal content, such as terror promotion or child pornography, or even sex trafficking (as with the Backpage controversy).

If we did have an environment where websites had to pay every telecom company to be hooked up to them, it’s likely that hosting companies like Bluehost would have to build this into their fees to take care of it.  I actually have four separate hosted WordPress blog domains.  It’s significant that Bluehost (and probably other companies) allow a user just one hosting account with a primary domain name.  Add-on domains are internally made subdomains of the primary and converted internally.  So, the user would probably only he “charged” for one hookup, regardless of the number of blogs.  (It’s also possible to put separate blogs in separate installations of WordPress in separate directories, I believe, but I see no reason now to try it.)   But one mystery to me is, that if Bluehost does have a “primary domain” concept with subdomains, why can’t it make the entire network https (SSL) instead of just one “real” domain?  I expect this will change.  SSL is still pretty expensive for small businesses to offer (they can generally outsource their credit card operations and consumer security, but there is more pressure, from groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation, to implement “https everywhere” for all content).

It’s also worthy of note that “free blogs” on services like Blogger and WordPress use a subdomain concept, so there is only one domain name hookup per user to any ISP.  That’s why Blogger can offer https to its own hosted blogs but not to blogs that default to user-owned domain names.

We can note that search engines like Google and Bing aren’t held to a “neutrality” policy and in fact often change their algorithms to prevent unfair (“link farming”) practices by some sites.

So, here we are, having examined net neutrality and its supposed importance to small site owners (nobody really worried about this until around 2008 it seems).  But there are a lot of other issues that could threaten the Internet as we know it.  Many of the proposals revolve around the issue of “downstream liability”:  web hosting companies and social media companies don’t have to review user posts before self-publication for legal problems;  if they had to, users simply could not be allowed to self-publish.  (That’s how things were until the mid 1990s.)  But, as I’ve noted, there are proposals to water down “Section 230” provisions in the US because of issues like terrorism recruiting (especially by ISIS), cyberbulling, revenge porn, and especially sex trafficking (the Backpage scandal).  Hosts and social media companies do have to remove (and report) child pornography now when they find it or when it is flagged by users, but even that content cannot be screened before the fact.  And Facebook and Twitter are getting better at detecting terror recruiting, gratuitous violence, fake news, and trafficking.  But widescale abuse by combative and relatively less educated users starts to raise the ethical question about whether user-generated content needs to pay its own way, rather than become a gratuitous privilege for those who really don’t like to interact with others whom they want to criticize.

In Europe and British Commonwealth countries there is apparently less protection from downstream liability allowed service providers than in the U.S., which would be the reverse of the legal climate when compared to the network neutrality issue.  And Europe has a “right to be forgotten” concept. Yet, user-generated content still seems to flourish in western countries besides the U.S.

I mentioned earlier the idea that a small business or even personal website should help the reader in a real-world sense.  Now Ramsay’s ideas on Blogtyrant seem most applicable to niche marketing.  That is, a business meeting a narrow and specific consumer need will tend to attract followers (hence Blogtyrant’s recommendations for e-mail lists that go beyond the fear of spam and malware).  It’s noteworthy that most niche markets probably would require only one blog site (despite my discussion above of how hosting and service providers handle multiple blogs from one user.) It’s pretty easy to imagine what niche blogs would be like:  those of lawyers (advising clients), financial planners, real estate agents, insurance agents, tax preparers, beauty products, fashion, and games and sports (especially chess).  It would seem that gaming would create its own niche areas.  And there are the famous mommy blogs (“dooce” by Heather Armstrong, who added a new verb to English – note her site has https –, although many later “mommy” imitations have not done nearly so well).  I can imagine how a well-selling fiction author could set up a niche blog, to discuss fiction writing (but not give away her own novels).

Another area would be political activism, where my own sense of ethics makes some of this problematical, although Ii won’t get into that here.

In fact, my whole history has been the opposite, to play “Devil’s advocate” and provide “objective commentary” and “connect the dots” among almost everything, although how I got into this is a topic for another day (it had started with gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell” in the US in the 1990s, and everything else grew around it).   One could say that my entering the debate this way meant I could never become anyone else’s mouth piece for “professional activism” or conventional salesmanship (“Always Be Closing”).  I guess that at age 54 I traded queens into my own (chess) endgame early, and am getting to the king-and-pawn stage, looking for “the opposition”.

There’s a good question about what “helps people”.  “The Asylumist” is a good example; it is written by an immigration lawyer Jason Dzubow specifically to help asylum seekers.  Jason doesn’t debate the wisdom of immigration policy as an intellectual exercise, although he has a practical problem of communicating what asylum seekers can expect during the age of Trump – and some of it is unpredictable. On this (my) blog, I’ve tried to explore what other civilians who consider helping asylum seekers (especially housing them personally) could expect.  Is that “helping people” when what I publish is so analytical, tracing the paths of speculation?  I certainly have warned a lot of people about things that could get people into trouble, for example, allowing someone else (even an Airbnb renter!) to use your home Internet router connection, for which you could be personally liable (sorry, no personalized Section 230).  Is the end result (of my own blog postings) to make people hesitant to offer a helping hand to immigrants out of social capital (and play into Donald Trump’s hands)?  I think I’m making certain problems a matter of record so policy makers consider them, and I have some ample evidence that they do.  But does that “help people” the way a normal small business does?

Getting back to how a blog helps a small business, the underlying concept (which does not work with my operation) is that the business pays for itself, by meeting real needs that consumers pay for (let’s hope they’re legitimate, not porn).  Legitimate business use of the Internet should come from “liking people.”  If blogging were undermined by a combination of policy changes in the US under Trump, it might not affect people everywhere else (although Theresa May wants it to), and it would be especially bad for me with my free-content model based on wealth accumulated elsewhere (some of it inherited but by no means all of it); but legitimate for-profit businesses will always have some basic way to reach their customers.

There has been talk of threats to blogging before.  One of the most serious perils occurred around 2005, in connection with campaign finance reform in the U.S., which I had explained here.

(Posted: Monday, June 12, 2017 at 12 noon EDT USA)

Families of San Bernadino terror attack victims sue Facebook, Twitter, Google over “propaganda” arguments that evade Section 230

Families of victims of the fall 2015 terror attack in San Bernadino, CA are suing the three biggest social media companies (that allow unmonitored broadcast of content in public mode), that is Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Similar suits have been filed by victims of the Pulse attack in Orlando and the 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

Station WJLA in Washington DC, a subsidiary of the “conservative” (perhaps mildly so) Sinclair Broadcast Group in Baltimore, put up a news story Tuesday morning, including a Scribd PDF copy of the legal complaint in a federal court in central California, here. I find it interesting that Sinclair released this report, as it did so last summer with stories about threats to the power grids, which WJLA and News Channel 8 in Washington announced but then provided very little coverage of to local audiences (I had to hunt it down online to a station in Wisconsin).

Normally, Section 230 protects social media companies from downstream liability for the usual personal torts, especially libel, and DNCA Safe Harbor protects them in a similar fashion from copyright liability if they remove content when notified.

However, the complaint seems to suggest that the companies are spreading propaganda and share in the advertising revenue earned from the content, particularly in some cases from news aggregation aimed at user “Likenomics”.

Companies do have a legal responsibility to remove certain content when brought to their attention, including especially child pornography and probably sex trafficking, and probably clearcut criminal plans. They might have legal duties in wartime settings regarding espionage, and they conceivably could have legal obligations regarding classified information (which is what the legal debate over Wikileaks and Russian hacking deals with).

But “propaganda” by itself is ideology. Authoritarian politicians on both the right and left (Vladimir Putin) use the word a lot, because they rule over populations that are less individualistic in their life experience than ours, where critical thinking isn’t possible, and where people have to act together. The word, which we all learn about in high school civics and government social studies classes (and I write this post on a school day – and I used to sub), has always sounded dangerous to me.

But the propagation of ideology alone would probably be protected by the First Amendment, until it is accompanied by more specific criminal or military (war) plans. A possible complication could be the idea that terror ideology regards civilians as combatants.

Facebook recently announced it would add 3000 associates to screen for terror or hate content, but mainly on conjunction with Facebook Live broadcasts of crimes or even suicide. I would probably be a good candidate for one of these positions, but I am so busy working for myself I don’t have time (in “retirement”, which is rather like “in relief” in baseball).

Again, the Internet that we know with unfiltered user-generated content is not possible today if service companies have to pre-screen what gets published for possible legal problems. Section 230 will come under fire for other reasons soon (the Backpage scandal).

I have an earlier legacy post about Section 230 and Backpage here.

(Posted: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

Facebook, and other social media companies and publishing platforms, come under more scrutiny as “attractive nuisances” for unstable people

The New York Times has a front page story about social media perils with a blunt headline, “Video of killing casts Facebook in a harsh light”.   (Maybe, in comparison to the tort manual, it’s a “false light”).  The story, by Mike Isaac and Christopher Mele, has a more expansive title online, “A murder on Facebook provokes outrage and questions over responsibility.”

This refers to a recent brazen random shooting of a senior citizen in Cleveland Easter Sunday (on Facebook Live), but there have been a few other such incidents, including the gunning of two reporters on a Virginia television station during a broadcast in 2015, after which the perpetrator committed suicide. Facebook Live has also been used to record shooting by police, however (as in Minnesota).

The Wall Street Journal has a similar story today by Deep Seetharaman (“Murder forces scrutiny at Facebook”) and Variety includes a statement by Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s VP of global operations.  Really, is it reasonable the AI or some other tool can detect violent activity being filmed prospectively?

At the outset, it’s pretty easy to ask why the assailants in these cases had weapons.  Obviously, they should not have passed background checks – except that some may have had no previous records.

As the articles point out, sometimes the possibility of public spectacle plays into the hands of “religious enemies”, that is lone wolf actors motivated by radical Islam or other ideologies. But at a certain psychological level, religion is a secondary contributing factor.  Persons who commit such acts publicly (or covertly) have found that this world if modernism, abstraction and personal responsibility makes no sense to them.  So ungated social media may, in rare cases, provoke a “15 minutes of fame” motive along with a “nothing to lose” attitude (and maybe a belief in martyrdom).  This syndrome seems very personal and usually goes beyond the portrayal of an authoritarian religious or political message.

It is easy, of course, to invoke a Cato-like statistical argument (which often applies to immigration).  In a nation of over 300 million people (or a world of billions), instant communication will rarely, but perhaps predictably with some very low probability, provoke such incidents.  You can make the same arguments about the mobility offered by driving cars.

Ungated user content offers new forms of journalism, personal expression and self-promotion, and new checks on political powers, but it comes with some risks, like fake news and crazy people seeking attention.

For me, the history is augmented by the observation that most of my own “self-promotion” came through search engines on flat sites, in the late 90s and early 00’s, before modern social media offered friending and news aggregation.  As with an incident when I was substitute teaching in late 2005, the possibility of search engine discovery carried its own risks, leading to the development of the notion of “online reputation.”

Still, the development of user-generated content, that did not have to pay its own freight the way old fashioned print publications did in the pre-Internet days when the bottom line controlled what could be published, is remarkable in the moral dilemmas it can create.

It’s ironic. How social media allows us to experience being “alone together”, but makes up for it by encouraging individuals to ask for help online by crowdfunding the meeting of their own needs – something I am usually hesitant to jump into.

This is a good place to mention a new intrusion onto Section 230, a bill by Anne Wagner (R-MO), “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017”, partly in response to the Backpage controversy, congressional link here. No doubt discussion of this bill will cause more discussion of the expectations for proactive screening by social media.

There’s an additional note: the perpetrator of the Cleveland incident has ended his own life after police attempted to apprehend him (Cleveland Plain Dealer story).

(Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

Update: Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 10:45 AM EDT

There has been a major crime deliberately filmed on Facebook Live in Thailand, story here.

Facebook has announced plans to hire 3000 more people to screen complaints for inappropriate content.  These jobs probably often require bilingual skills.

To “make America great again” we may have to learn to respect salesmanship (again)

Have we forgotten how to sell to each other?

I sometimes wonder that as I refuse to answer robocalls, mark email as spam, and post no solicitations on the front door.  I don’t like to be interrupted when “working”.

I don’t need more auto warranties (they’re more dependable from your dealer), and I don’t need sudden travel deals (although I could imagine that some week I might).  I don’t need SEO services, and I don’t need Windows drivers from third parties advertising on YouTube.  I don’t need to replace my Medicare (and AARP supplemental) with Medicare Advantage, although I do wonder if TrumpCare or RyanCare could change that.

Yet, for 14 months while living in Minneapolis, after my career had its cardiac arrest at the end o 2001, I worked for the Minnesota Orchestra, calling for contributions to the Young People’s Concerts.  This was slightly post 9/11, but people would answer the phone then, do pledges, and even “blue money on credit”.  The non-profit word for this activity was “development”.

After coming back to DC, I worked for a company selling National Symphony subscriptions, but suddenly quit when a call recipient threatened me with arrest for calling after the 9:00 PM statutory curfew.  I will not tolerate employers’ expecting me to break the law. I could afford to enforce that then and now.

It was eye-opening to me, that someone could major in music, and then come down from Toronto to teach us how to sell music subscriptions to the masses.  I feel it’s a great honor to be recognized as a content creator.  I feel “peddling” is second-class citizenship.

From 1972-1973, living in northern New Jersey, I worked for Sperry Univac, when it was trying to compete with IBM.  My job was “site support”, providing technical interface for processors (FORTRAN, COBOL, etc) and I made beaucoup trips to St. Paul MN for benchmarks.  The whole idea was to sell more computers.  I did get the feedback that I “didn’t have a marketing profile” and would be better off in “real” development.

Indeed I spent probably twenty-six years or so largely as an individual contributor in developing, implementing, and supporting business applications, batch and online, mostly mainframe.  I was not a life that encouraged a lot of socialization for its own sake, or being part of other people’s social capital.  After I “retired”, I found out how the real world of “Lotsa Helping Hands” can work.

My father was a salesman, of sorts – actually, a “manufacturer’s agent”, for Imperial Glass, until 1971.  I remember his travel to glass shows all over the East Coast, his filling orders manually and doing the accounting with adding machines.  Mother helped him.  But he worked wholesale.  Selling for him was mostly about customer service.  It was never about cold calling or pimping.

But when I “retired” (I was well provided for by ING with the final layoff and forced retirement), I was rather shocked at the corporate culture I found with some interviews.  One of the sessions occurred in 2002 and would have involved contacting people to get them to convert whole life policies to term.  Later, I would be approached by two companies (unsolicited) to become a life insurance agent or financial planner.  Getting “leads” in that business means trolling people on the Internet to find out who to make cold calls to.  I would also be approached to become a tax preparer (unsolicited), and a non-profit mall canvasser.

One of the more provocative screening questions (in 2005 at New York Life) was, “do you every buy anything from a salesman?”  I answered yes, because I wanted to continue the interview.  But I flashed a mental image of encyclopedia salesmen (we had bought a World Book set with its great state relief maps in 1950), and even music course salesmen (Sherwood Music courses for piano, from Chicago) – again, musicians need real incomes from selling.

The term life interviewer even said “We give you the words”, and yet became defensive in front of me as a I probed whether this idea really works or is best for consumers.  (Whole life conversion will be a good idea for many people, probably.)  He (who seemed to run a franchise office with his wife) exerted the authoritarian attitude that we now recognize with Donald Trump – that you can “create facts” (or use “alternative facts”) and convince people of your vision mainly by believing it and getting others to believe it –which makes it come true (whether that’s getting a casino to make money or living forever in a hallow heaven).  That sounds like ministry, proselytizing.   Some of the tall tales about Trump University (getting people to max out heir credit cards against future real estate income) remind me of the 2008 crisis (which drove Stephen Bannon’s ideology).  I did get a couple calls about jobs selling subprime mortgages when I already realized they would crash together when then introductory (ARM)  rates went up.

I’m reminded of how LDS missions work – young adults (as in the movie “God’s Army” and then “Latter Days”) are supposed to recruit others to their faith (Mitt Romney even did this) and they even pay for the opportunity.

I’m also recalling the comedy movie “100 Mile Rule” (let alone Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross”), where the salesman mantra was “Always Be Closing.”  I see those YouTube ads, “Become a marketer” and just laugh.

When I was working, “coders” thought of management as not smart enough to deal with the nitty-gritty of tracing registers in assembler language.  But we really thought of salesmen as not smart enough to code.  It was an attitude that we could hardly afford.

And now days, I get hounded as to why I don’t sell more hardcopies of my own books, and do more to support bookstores, or kids’ reading programs.  I get it.  Salesmanship (sometimes even hucksterism) is important to other people’s jobs.  But now we have an “It’s free” culture, and a “do it yourself” world of taking care of yourself online.  Donald Trump himself said he doesn’t like computers much, because the online world (including his favorite Twitter) dilutes the importance of social capital that does help people sell.  Oh, yes, remember the good old days of being invited to Amway presentations.

People (like me) have good reasons not to want to be bothered by hucksters.  But we’ve also created a world where it’s very hard for many people to make a living doing anything else.  Donald Trump is right in saying we have to do a lot more of our manufacturing at home again (“Make America Great Again”, or “MAGA”) but not just for the parochial needs of his specialized voting base.  National security would say we ought to make more of our own transformers, batteries, communications hardware components. We need to have a reasonable percentage of working-age adults actually making goods to remain economically and socially healthy — and safe.

(Posted: March 22, 2017 at 11:30 AM EDT)

 

If you’ve become a voluntary pundit, don’t expect to delete yourself from the Internet

I’ve imagined a creepy horror film (maybe just a short), where you get called in for the Last Supper of your life, sent up to a hotel room, allowed to make one or two last postings, then denied access, then had your whole online existence removed.  Then the fantasy or catch or your life knocks on your door and gives you one last “peak experience” as you pass into the Afterlife, if it exists, with your karma cleaned up.  Maybe this could be a low budget movie.

Yet maybe a little more than ten years ago, “online reputation” became a trendy topic, even leading a company by that name to be founded.

Before that, I had to deal already had to deal with “what I had done”.  When I couldn’t sell enough hard copy books, I became an online pundit.  I got a reputation that way (as an “older Milo”, and probably more socially acceptable, especially to Donald Trump) but my Pharisee-speech didn’t pay its own way.  In the most extreme circumstances, it might get me or other people connected to me killed.

Earlier, I had entertained the idea that people in positions of authority over others (with direct reports) should not express their opinions in unsupervised manner because that could show prejudice or hostile workplace.  This was my own implementation of the idea of “conflict of interest”.  Again, obviously Donald Trump doesn’t respect it now (and I have only one degree of separation from Donald Trump, despite never paying the fees to go to Mar-a-Lago – maybe I can get invited).

Nevertheless, in the past, I’ve had to entertain the idea that a lot of my own Internet presence would have to be removed if I took certain kinds of jobs, as I outlined here.

But is it feasible anymore for someone to go completely dark?  Not very.  I’d say fifteen years ago it was feasible.  You could take everything down, and ask Google to remove all references to your flat files online (before blogs and social media components became SOP).

The old idea of a double life (especially for LGBTQ) seems to be gone forever.  Really, I sometimes miss the way it was in the 1970s and 1980s, even until about 1996 or so.  You had your home and your possessions, and you developed a reputation.  Arranging gatherings and social events meant more then.  In the gay community in DC, you went on adventures with Adventuring or Chrysalis.  (You still can, but my life has changed so much since the 90s that I really don’t have time).  My parents developed a presence with real world property and things – my father was very dedicated to his own workshop, filled with tools, which was much more common for people in the 1950s than now.  As I get older, I find myself mentally revisiting those years.

Here is Abby Ohlheiser’s take in the Washington Post on what it would take to go completely dark, like a white dwarf star that has completely burned out into a dark cinder.   Part of the strategy is to imitate Kellyanne and create “alternative facts” online first.  Some social media will let you change your birth date a few times.  I could imagine a pro-life change to your conception date.

I’ve noticed that there are a number of companies that offer a public records history and background investigation on anyone, for a membership fee.  Of course, if the subject belonged to the same service, he or she would know you had ordered it.  I really like my fantasies of Maslow peak experience and have no reason to spy on anyone and ruin the faith.

Update: March 23, 2017

Check out Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times March 12, “Resist the Internet“.  Douthat doesn’t want kids under 16 to use social media at all, or to have cell phones too early.  He also mentions a no-tech private school in Silicon Valley, Walforf, that many tech executives send their kids to.  The school has students learning to knit socks, and participating in many group rhetorical exercises with the teacher, who is quite engaged.